Homeless deaths 'preventable,' 'premature'
At least 88 homeless people died in Multnomah County last year.
More than half were found dead outside.
The youngest was 17.
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Since 2011, Multnomah County has counted the number of homeless people who died over the course of the year. The 2015 data was released Sept. 9 and it shows the problem is getting worse on our streets.
In 2014, there were 56 deaths, up from 32 in 2013.
In 2015, 17 homeless women and 71 homeless men died. Half of the deaths involved alcohol or drugs and half did not. Five were homicides and five were suicides.
The average age of homeless women who died was just 41 years old and the average age for men was 50. That’s decades younger than the average age of death in Oregon, which is nearly 80 years old.
The county said there were almost certainly more homeless deaths than the ones counted. According to Dr. Paul Lewis with Multnomah County Health, the cause of deaths suggest virtually all were preventable, premature, or both.
Eighty-eight deaths over the course of a year may not seem like a lot. But a deeper look at the data shows it’s an exceptionally high rate of death – far higher than the state, country and even the world’s poorest countries.
There are an estimated 4,000 homeless people living in shelters and on the streets of Multnomah County and they are dying far faster than the general population. In 2015, the homeless mortality rate was 2 percent; two-and-a-half times the state’s and country’s overall rate of death.
Homeless people in Multnomah County die at a higher rate than any country’s general population on the planet, based on CIA statistics.
Homeless deaths are not limited to Portland. King County in Washington had 91 deaths last year. San Francisco had 41.
But the data tells a story that’s more than just numbers. A report on the deaths, titled “Domicile Unknown,” details stories of three of the people who died.
Christopher Adams earned two degrees from Oregon State University but was passed over for jobs due to his extremely poor eyesight. Even after he became homeless, he held a steady job at K-Mart. He kept a gym membership so he could take showers and slept inside of a storage unit.
Adams died inside the storage unit.
“He was the smartest person I ever knew,” his sister said. “But he died of a perforated ulcer – something that can be treated and fixed – in a storage unit. He’d been working just two days earlier. He never missed a shift.”
Ryan Cowger was a 4.0 student and counseled young men with disabilities, but became addicted to opioid painkillers after he developed kidney stones. He went to rehab for two years but relapsed and died in a shelter of an overdose. His mother said he had a “very caring, kind soul.”
Michael Kenneweg grew up in Michigan but loved Portland. He died of a heroin overdose at 33.
“People don’t have compassion when someone dies of a heroin addiction,’’ his sister said. “That’s what makes it so much more painful. It doesn’t change the fact he was my brother, he had people who loved him. He was my favorite person in the world.”
Israel Bayer, Executive Director of Street Roots, called the report “a wake-up call for our community.”
“There is simply no reason that, in a community that is thriving economically, that hundreds of people should be dying on our streets, isolated and alone, and without a safe place to call home. It is beyond tragic,” he said.
The county and other agencies are working to address homelessness and prevent more deaths, but it’s a complex problem that needs more funding and support than it currently has.
A Home for Everyone, a partnership of city and county agencies, is working to help people find housing, add shelter beds and prevent more people from becoming homeless.
But the Domicile Unknown report concluded that the community needs to do more.
“None of them should have died without a home. We can do better,” it said.